teacher appreciation? Try better pay, more governors say

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — As schools across the country struggle to find teachers, growing numbers of governors are pushing for raises, bonuses and other perks for the struggling profession — some vowing to beat other states competing for educators.

As early as 2023, governors in Georgia and Arkansas pushed through pay rises for teachers. Ahead of Monday’s start of national Teacher Appreciation Week, others — both Republicans and Democrats — have suggested doing the same to attract and retain educators.

More than half of state governors last year — 26 so far — have proposed increasing teachers’ pay, according to groups that track it. The nonprofit Teacher Salary Project said it was the best it’s seen in nearly two decades of tracking.

“Today we have governors on the left and right of every political party and then some who are addressing this issue because they have to,” said founder and CEO Ninivé Caligari. “We have never seen what we are seeing now. Never.”

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little is aiming to place the state’s average starting salary in the top 10 in the country. In Delaware, Gov. John Carney said competition for teachers is more intense than ever and a pay rise is needed to “win the competition in surrounding states.”

But it’s not clear how far pay rises will help alleviate the shortage, and some teachers say it’s too little, too late, to fix problems that have been years in the making.

Blame for teacher shortages lies in post-Great Recession underfunding, tight labor markets, lackluster enrollments in colleges and teacher education programs, and teacher burnout ignited by the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There hasn’t been a mass exodus, but data from some states tracking teacher turnover has shown that the number of teachers who have left the profession has increased in recent years.

Bottlenecks are greatest in certain areas, including the poorest or most rural counties, researchers say. Districts also report particular difficulties in hiring positions for in-demand subjects such as special education, math and science.

Meanwhile, teachers’ salaries have steadily fallen behind those of their graduate peers in other fields, as teachers report mounting workloads, shrinking autonomy, and an increasingly hostile school environment.

Magan Daniel, who at 33 just left her school district in central Alabama, refused to be persuaded to stay by pay rises as the Alabama governor promises to make teachers’ salaries the highest in the Southeast. According to the National Education Association, it would take big raises to compete with neighboring Georgia, where the average teacher salary is $62,200.

Fixing the deteriorating work culture and growing teacher workload would be a stronger incentive than a pay rise, she said.

For example, she recalled that last fall her principal asked her to make copies and lesson plans while she was on unpaid maternity leave. Difficulty finding replacements is putting pressure on teachers who need time off for emergencies, she said, and spending nights and weekends on paperwork has taken the joy out of teaching.

“I wouldn’t return just for a higher salary,” Daniel said.

In Oklahoma, Joshua Morgan, 46, left his rural district a year ago because he was still making less than $47,000 after 18 years. Oklahoma’s governor is talking about awarding performance bonuses, but Morgan said he would only return to teaching for significantly more money — about $65,000 a year.

According to the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the national median salary for public school teachers increased 2% year over year to $66,745 in 2021-22. Inflation then peaked at around 9%.

For new recruits, the bill for paying for a college education is bleak: The national median salary for prospective teachers was $42,845 in 2021-22, according to the NEA. Teachers often qualify for government loan forgiveness, which cancels their student debt after making monthly payments for 10 years.

Aside from fewer teachers being certified, the “teacher pay penalty” – the pay gap between teachers and their college-educated counterparts in other professions – is growing.

It hit a record 23.5% in 2021, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, with teachers earning an average of 76.5 cents for every dollar other college graduates earned.

It has been expanding for decades, researchers say. It’s 35% for men and 17% for women – reflecting the gender pay gap across the US economy.

For Rachaele Otto and other Louisiana teachers, the prospect of a $3,000 salary increase proposed by the governor could be appreciated. But about $200 a month after taxes isn’t enough to keep a teacher who’s feeling burned out or demoralized, Otto said.

“I know there are teachers who are willing to take a pay cut to quit the job,” said Otto, 38, a science teacher in a rural Louisiana county. “If you double the salary, maybe that would change their mindset.”

Sylvia Allegretto, a senior economist who studies teacher pay for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, called governors’ salary promises a one-off “band-aid” that barely keeps pace with inflation.

“You’re kind of sanding the edges,” Allegretto said. “You generally don’t fix the problem.”

For governors, raising teachers’ salaries may be good policy, but a general increase can do little in the long run. Getting better data on where the bottlenecks are, and then targeting increases — or larger increases — to those areas will help more, researchers say.

Research shows that a pay rise will have at least some effect on teacher retention, said Ed Fuller, an associate professor at Penn State who studies teacher quality and turnover. What’s difficult to research, Fuller said, is the impact of a pay rise on a college student’s decision to enter a teacher preparation program — and go into debt.

Some districts have not waited for governors and legislatures to act.

Kentucky’s largest school district, Jefferson County in Louisville, gave a 4% hike last year and the board approved another 5% hike to begin next July. It also began providing an annual $8,000 stipend to teachers working with needy students.

Superintendent Marty Pollio wants the district to be the best-paid in Kentucky, calling the teacher shortage “a real crisis and a growing crisis.”

In Pennsylvania, the William Penn School District is offering signing awards for long-term subjects and hosting its first-ever teacher job fair.

Superintendent Eric Becoats said a teacher told him they could move to neighboring counties and make $10,000 more — something the relatively small and poor county can’t currently compete with.

Some teachers also tell him they will retire or leave the profession when they can.

Morgan said it takes a big change in salary to overcome a big change in how teachers view a profession they used to want to stay in until retirement.

“That’s not how the world works anymore,” Morgan said. “I’m seeing more and more educators, especially the younger ones, come in and say, ‘I’m not ready to take this.'”


Brooke Schultz, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. New Orleans data reporter Sharon Lurye also contributed.


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Marc Levy, The Associated Press


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